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Confused about soil health

 
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Hey guys,

This will be my first post. My husband and I are set to buy and move onto almost 20 acres of land in early summer (Hoping around mid-June) in the Roanoke Area of Virginia (in the Appalachian mountains, good sun, good rain, solid four seasons.) It is a piece of land that used to belong to my husband's grandmother, so we're excited about it. I've always wanted to own a small homestead and have been researching it my whole life, but there is one thing I absolutely can NOT wrap my head around. And that's soil health.

So many people will say "We were able to bring life back to our soil by letting pigs till it, and letting chicken scratch and poop on it, and growing cover crops then cutting them down" and so on. Permaculture is the way we're leaning, we dont want to have to bring in fertilizer or amendments. But I dont get how you could possibly bring soil back to life, or for that matter keep healthy soil from dying.

In the wild, plants grow from the soil, and die and decompose. Animals eat the plants too, but their poop and eventually their deaths put that nutrition back into the soil. It's a closed system. A farm is not. Even if you put every ounce of manure, and every scrap of extra food, back into the land, you're still eating your grown veggies and your livestock's meat. And unless you compost your humanure, all that energy LITTERALLY gets flushed down the drain. Those nutrients dont get put back into the soil, and you can't get something from nothing. No matter how AMAZING rabbit poop is, those rabbits arent going to be able to poop out nutrients unless it came from somewhere (the crops grown in your soil), and some of those nutrients go towards the meat we eat. All I can see is a net loss of nutrients, unless you compost your humanure or buy fertilizer or feed animals with food you bought off-farm.

How the absolute CRAP does this work???
 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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Just some more info,
We intend to eventually have a home garden and an edible food forest one acre, and use the other 18.1 acres to rotate pasture, hay, and more produce so every year the land is growing something different. We want to have maybe 2 dairy cows, somewhere between 5 and 10 goats, maybe 3 pigs per season, and then rabbits and chickens and turkeys and ducks. We also want a pair of draft horses so we can horsepower the farm instead of needing a tractor or two.
I intend to buy as little feed off property as possible, but am not against it entirely, and will attempt to use permaculture practices to help the land help us do all this, plus intensive rotational grazing. But I just dont get how even with all this, the soil will start healthy
 
pollinator
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Congrats on the move. There's a wiki for Dr. RedHawks epic soil series with tons of info about soil health you can search for on the forum home page.

One thing I'll offer up though is that with trees they will capture mineral dusts out of the air that will be then washed down into your land. That is one way a natural system takes in nutrients. But I do think you're right that a farm that has literally zero inputs besides human energy is rare to the point of possibly being nonexistent. Even of just mineral supplements for your animals or cover crop seeds you are likely to need to bring in some things
 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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Thanks, I didnt know that about the trees, although it makes sense!
I'll check out dr. red-hawk's info, sounds like something I should definately look into.
I just dont get how like, people way off grid do it. Not just that lifestyle, but keeping their healthy and nutrient-rich. I guess they compost their humanure in most cases but still. I dunno, it's like the math doesnt compute.
I appreciate your help
 
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AnnaLea, What has the property been used for in the last few years?  Has it been a working farm?  Or has it been sitting unused?

It would be good to have the soil tested in the areas that you wish to grow crops.  The report will tell you what your soil is lacking so that you can add what is needed.

Here is the soil series that s. lowe mentioned :  https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil

This one may answer all your questions:  What we need to know about Soil

 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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Hey Anne,
Once upon a time (back in the mid-1800's) when my husband's family first settled the area, they almost 500 acres that they planted grain crops, tobacco, and pastured herds of cattle and goats. Sometime in the 40's they switched to just running cattle. 15 years ago My hubby's grandfather (who had dementia) was suckered into a land sale for pennies on the dollar of all but the core home acreage (~30 acres) and has basically been left to it's own devices since then, aside from occasionally chopping down a tree or two for winter wood, and the odd goat or steer. My father in law lives on 5 acres, his sister lives on 5, and the estate attempted to sell the other 20 (our 20) when my husband's grandmother died last year. As far I know it's basically fallen back to wild grasses, some pioneer shrubs, and a small tree stand

I tend to overshare. I guess the answer to your question is "Bassically unused for the past 15 years" lol
 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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Thank you for the link by the way! I'll read that next!
Here is a picture of the property from Google maps
The straight line on the left side of the pic where grass meets tree, if you follow that straight up to the road, and straight down to just above the house at the bottom, that Mark's the border of the property, with the road marking the other side
Screenshot_20200413-112329_Maps.jpg
[Thumbnail for Screenshot_20200413-112329_Maps.jpg]
 
Anne Miller
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Since it has basically been unused, then mother nature may have done her thing so that plants have died and returned to the soil increasing soil health. Then trees fell and decayed, again increasing soil health.

That article that I posted will help you understand the concept.

 
Anne Miller
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You were posting the picture of the property at the same time I was posting about mother nature.  

Looks like there are lots of trees.  If some of them are on the property, under those trees where lack of sunlight keeps grass from growing there will be leaf mold.  The leaves fall undisturbed and decay then become a wonderful nature's compost.
 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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So, it's my understanding upon reading that particular article, and one of the others in the list, that plants can even grow in dirt, because they capture the microorganisms they require for life, and that the minerals and nutrients and such are important, but not the only factors. Carbon storage is also a big deal, and that's absorbed from the atmosphere so long ad the soil is healthy and balanced. In all my research fervor, I seem to have forgotten my basic biology lessons. Plants use the sun to convert carbon dioxide (and water) into glucose. Everything after that is just icing.

So i suppose, in the simplest terms, I shouldnt focus on the exact amount of nutrients in the soil, but in ensuring it can absorb carbon properly. It doesnt need a perfect 1=1 system to do that, so long as plants can catch organisms and so long as there is enough organic matter to keep those organisms fed. The exact nutrient levels after that are just for optimization of growth/production. (I know that's not exactly correct but it's what I'm dumbing down to I don't make myself crazy thinking about the effects of removing nutrients from the cycle via eating)

Was a good read and helped a lot. Thanks to both of you for helping me out!
 
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Hi AnnaLea, welcome to Permies!

I'll try to offer a quick layman explanation, but the real body of information is in Redhawks soil threads, which Anne linked in her post above.

AnnaLea Kodiak wrote:...we dont want to have to bring in fertilizer or amendments. But I dont get how you could possibly bring soil back to life, or for that matter keep healthy soil from dying.



Soil is a complex living system, and when it dies the soil becomes dirt. So "fertilizer", and I will make an assumption that you mean things like petroleum based ag fertilizers, that blue powder in the yellow box/tub (or any number or brand names), ammonium nitrate, urea... etc. are unnecessary and will have at a minimum a deleterious, sometimes devastating effect on soil and soil life. Ammendments on the other hand can be things, where applicable and if needed, that will help heal and nurture a soil. I use amendments like rock dusts, such as lime to add calcium to a soil and make it less acidic, and sea minerals. The best soils have 60 or so minerals in them. The oceans of the world contain 90+ minerals. I use unrefined sea salt and kelp to add those missing 30 or so minerals to my soil, which in turn feed the soil food web. Ammendments may only be needed to heal a soil, and healthy soils can then be maintained through ecological and regenerative management.

I believe the best way to keep healthy soil from dying is to never use petroleum fertilizers, never use poisons, never till the soil, always keep a soil covered with a mulch, compost plant scraps & leaves & such and return this to the soil, and always have something growing in it (where possible. I think geographic location may limit this). These practices nurture the bacteria and fungi in the soil. These practices also not only just prevent a soil from dying, they nurture and get (and keep) a soil thriving.

In the wild, plants grow from the soil, and die and decompose. Animals eat the plants too, but their poop and eventually their deaths put that nutrition back into the soil. It's a closed system. A farm is not. Even if you put every ounce of manure, and every scrap of extra food, back into the land, you're still eating your grown veggies and your livestock's meat. And unless you compost your humanure, all that energy LITTERALLY gets flushed down the drain. Those nutrients dont get put back into the soil, and you can't get something from nothing. No matter how AMAZING rabbit poop is, those rabbits arent going to be able to poop out nutrients unless it came from somewhere (the crops grown in your soil), and some of those nutrients go towards the meat we eat. All I can see is a net loss of nutrients, unless you compost your humanure or buy fertilizer or feed animals with food you bought off-farm.



I believe you got this part figured out and is correct. There can be more than enough minerals in a soil to last a lifetime. The bacteria and fungi need to be there to access these minerals and make them available. It doesn't take much mineral to grow a plant and plants are mostly carbon that it got from the atmosphere and water, like over 95% of it's mass. If one were to take a plant, any plant, and burn it, the water and carbon go back to the atmosphere where they came from. The ash leftover is the minerals from the soil since they are elements and don't burn and can't be broken down any further.

How the absolute CRAP does this work???



Redhawks soil threads are much more detailed and are beautifully explained in a way that is easy to understand.

Good luck and I hope this helps!
 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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Hey James, lotta good information in your comment! Thanks!
The bit about burning a plant is a good thought, I didnt think of it that way. In that regard, even say, a heavily-producing tomato plant that gets harvested and never sees the minerals back from those fruits, isnt actually loosing that much. because they're mostly water and carbon. Burn a tomato to a crisp and there's basically nothing left.

Amendments in that form, how you use it, I hadn't considered. Salt doesnt harm the land? I thought salt was the LAST thing you wanted to put in your soil.

Thank you again, and also lol at quoting that last line in my original post. That made me chuckle
 
James Freyr
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Hey AnnaLea, happy to help!

AnnaLea Kodiak wrote: Salt doesnt harm the land? I thought salt was the LAST thing you wanted to put in your soil.



It depends. So salt can harm the land if used in excess, as most anything in excess, even good and necessary things, can harm the land. When it comes to me using salt, I use Sea-90, and the recommended rate of application is 50lbs/acre per year, and this is done for say maybe three years, then another three years are skipped. Salt is of course water soluble, and being soluble a lot of the "salt" (sodium chloride) part of the sea salt can percolate and wash right through a soil, and that also varies depending on soil types. Plants and soil microbial life need some chlorine and some sodium to live and grow and be healthy. Most of the 90-something minerals in unrefined sea salt will bond to soil particles and organic matters on places called exchange sites (they're microscopic), and some can just end up hanging out in amongst all the soil particles on a microscopic level. Soil chemistry can be complicated. But, back to salt, it can build up to an unhealthy amount but it takes a lot and repeated applications of which can easily be avoided. Refined sea salt and things like table salt, which are 99% or 100% NaCl are not good to apply to a soil. Refined salts are white as snow in color. Salts with minerals have a color, like that pink himalayan salt. Unrefined sea salts made today by evaporating sea water will often appear grey or have a "dirty" appearance.
 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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Thanks for clearing that up, lots of good clear information in there! I really appreciate the effort behind your response to my question too!
I thought all salt was bad salt, and heard the warnings "watch for white build up in the soil from fertilizing too much! Salt build up can kill your soil!" so I thought salt was the enemy
Now I can see I have even more research for do. x.x
 
James Freyr
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AnnaLea Kodiak wrote:
I thought all salt was bad salt, and heard the warnings "watch for white build up in the soil from fertilizing too much! Salt build up can kill your soil!"



Things can start to get a little more complicated here, as "salt" build up in agriculture often refers to fertilizer mineral salt and can mean all sorts of things, not just sodium chloride. This description is what can happen with excessive mineral salts, often from repeated application of commercial fertilizers, and like those warnings you've heard, commercial fertilizer salt buildup can quickly kill a soil. Fortunately, commercial fertilizers are completely unnecessary to grow healthy nutrient dense crops.
 
AnnaLea Kodiak
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Well that's awesome, thanks James!
I truly didnt realize there were different kinds of salt
 
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